Medicaid Reform in a House Divided and MCO, ACO…Who Cares?

Williams Mullen
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We are living in the most polarized society in recent American history. A recent study shows that the feeling of political partisanship has more than doubled over the past 2 decades. So since 1995, politically, America has parted the Red Sea with voters increasingly ebbing away from the middle.

Even more interesting is that, according to the same 2014 study, political animosity is at an all-time, recent high. I say “recent” because I cannot fathom a more polarized society than the society in the 1850s-1860s leading up to the Civil War. So, when I say “recent,” I mean post-invention of the telephone.

According to the Pew Research Center, “[i]n each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.””

     partisanship

If BOTH parties express this identical sentiment, someone is wrong.

So, now, here, in this extremely polarized society, our NC General Assembly is tackling one of our most important and most divisive issues…Medicaid Reform.

But, you say, “Knicole, our General Assembly is an overwhelming Republican majority.  Our Governor is Republican.  How can this vast and deep political polarization prevent NC from creating a new, better, non-broken Medicaid system?”

In NC, even the Republicans are polarized, at least as to the issue of Medicaid reform.  The two differing opinions as to Medicaid reform can be found in our separate houses: the Senate and the House of Representatives (House).  As for our executive branch, Governor McCrory sides with the House.

The houses are divided by acronyms: ACOs (House) versus MCOs (Senate).

The House plan for Medicaid reform involves accountable care organizations (ACOs).  The ACO plan includes physicians, hospitals and other health care providers collaborating to serve Medicaid recipients and assuming the monetary risks.  For example, one ACO may be liable for 6000 Medicaid recipients.  The ACO would be given X dollars per Medicaid recipient to cover the person’s overall health care.  Say the ACO, via its health professionals, conducts a preventative breast exam on a woman and discovers a lump.  The ACO would pay to remove the lump and, hopefully, the woman is ok.  If the ACO fails to practice preventative medicine and the woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, then the ACO must finance the more expensive surgery and chemotherapy required.  The ACO’s incentive would be to provide the best, proactive health care because, regardless, the ACO will be liable for that individual’s care.  With ACOs, there is a financial incentive to keep people healthy and the profit is shared with the state.

The Senate plan for Medicaid reform involves managed care organizations (MCOs).  Unlike ACOs, MCOs will not be comprised of health care providers.  The MCOs will be large companies that will be charged with managing Medicaid by contracting with a network of providers.  Many Medicaid services require prior authorization, which would be in the hands of the utilization review team employed by the MCO.  Similar to the ACO, the MCO would be given an amount of money based on the number of Medicaid recipients within its network.  The profit for the MCO is the money remaining at the end of the fiscal quarter that was not spent on services for Medicaid recipients.

What is better?  Does better mean the most cost-savings?  Does better mean the best quality of care for Medicaid recipients?

In order to determine whether the MCO-model or ACO-model is better and what exactly “better” means, you have to follow the money.  For both models, you have to ask, “If the actual medical services provided cost double the anticipated amount, who bears the burden?” And, conversely, “If the actual medical services provided cost half the anticipated amount, who pockets the profit?”

There are numerous ways for an insurer to be paid.  At one end of the spectrum, you have capitation; while at the other end of the spectrum you have a more typical financial relationship in which the insurer simply pays the health care provider its reasonable and usual amount.

Capitation is how we currently have our MCOs set up for behavioral health care in North Carolina.  As we currently use capitation for our MCOs, I would assume that the Senate-model MCOs would also be capitated.  Capitation places the risk on the MCO because the MCO receives a fixed amount regardless of actual cost.  However, there is concern (or should be) that the MCOs will provide patients less care than needed in order to pocket a profit.

On the other hand, ACOs typically do not rely on full capitation.  The ACOs may share the risk, and, therefore, the profit, with the state.

Another HUGE difference between ACOs and MCOs is that, with MCOs, the insurer in effect dictates what a health care provider is allowed to do.  For example, say a dentist believes that a person is in need of dentures.  Maybe 4-5 teeth have already fallen out and the remaining teeth are suffering more mild rot.  The dentist requests prior authorization from the MCO to extract teeth, create a mold of the mouth, and order dentures to be custom-created.  The MCO denies the requests saying, for example, not enough teeth have fallen out or not enough rot is present in the remaining teeth.  The dentist’s hands are tied to the decision of the MCO, unless the patient can fork over the cost of care that the MCO refuses to authorize.  And, BTW, the person who denied the request may have graduated from college with a BA in History . . . or in any event something else other than a field of medical or dental care

An ACO, on the other hand, is run by physicians, hospitals, and other health care providers. Theoretically, the decisions to authorize services would be made by those same people who swore the Hippocratic Oath.

With regard to healing the sick, I will devise and order for them the best diet, according to my judgment and means; and I will take care that they suffer no hurt or damage.

(I doubt a History major ever swore to heal the sick).

There has also been contemplation as to whether the General Assembly should remove the responsibility of managing Medicaid from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) completely.  Obviously, this suggestion is extreme and would require a Waiver from the federal government to transfer the “single state agency” requirement from DHHS to another entity.

Regardless of what decisions are made…whether the GA requires a private Medicaid panel to usurp Medicaid responsibilities from DHHS….whether NC adopts an MCO-model or an ACO-model for Medicaid reform….as it currently stands, our houses are divided.  No bills pass a divided legislature.

The Senate and House both indicate that Medicaid reform is a forefront issue during this long session, but, so far, there has been no indication of a Great Compromise.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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